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"And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress and keep it."
- Genesis 2:15
The human race has an inborn nature that desires to learn from and improve upon knowledge that we are given by our predecessors. We are curious by nature. We desire mental fulfillment and furtherance of our knowledge.
The above verse can be read in the second chapter of the Bible. As we follow the sequence of man's spread on the Earth, we get as far as chapter 4 until changes begin occurring. Here it tells us that Enoch built a city named after his son. Enoch's grandsons were men of industry. We read that Jabal lived in tents and was a cattleman. Jubal was the father of musicians that handled the harp and organ. Tubalcain was a craftsman of brass and iron.
This progression of 5 generations shows us how quickly man can adapt to the surrounding needs or available resources. How did they know how to build a city that could stay safely inhabited without an engineering degree? What inspired the musicians to design a harp or organ? The person to make the first harp had never seen one before. How would they have know that multiple length strings produced different tones or pitches? How did the first craftsman know that certain "dirt" or rocks can be heated and separated from the ore it contained to create a strong tool, musical instruments, or jewelry? All these tasks were accomplished with no education whatsoever. Today we have become, dare I say, over educated. We need a degree for almost every job that is available.
In this article, I wish to look at our Amish and Mennonite culture and see if we might be able to detect some of the same attributes that drove the ancient economy. We as a community do well to observe the evolution of industry within ourselves and the changes that it brings to our lives. A comment that I hear repeatedly from the "outsiders", visitors to our community is the change they observe in the 20 years that they have frequented our area. I believe this is more evident in Holmes County, Ohio due to that fact that up until 20 years ago we were a low key farming community. We were as a general rule, living in an era that was almost forgotten. We do well to raise the question of what lies in store for our future generations. Holmes County is merely an example of what is happening across the world.
We Anabaptists were traditionally farmers. However, we were also adaptable by nature. I believe the intense persecution of our forefathers required them to be flexible. Constantly moving about required multiple skills and adaptability to survive as they moved from country to country.
The culture and family life that agriculture promotes is a building block to bind our families and communities together. We needed each other to exist. As time went on, we became more independent. Not all bad but definitely bringing its challenges.
Back in the 1970's, if you were to travel our roads you would see active farmsteads scattered everywhere. Today, if you travel along our main street of State Route 39 from Millersburg to Sugarcreek what do we find? Five active dairy farms! That is all that is left. What happened? What are we left to face in our future?
As our families multiplied, homes grew scarcer. There are no more farms available. We needed to adapt, so smaller properties started popping up with family run shops at home. This included small engine repair, welding and repair, crafts and furniture shops.
It was easy to hang a hand painted shingle out at the road announcing that we now sell solid oak contrivances. We started observing the increasing traffic that frequented our winding idyllic roads on a beautiful autumn weekend. Suddenly you could see an occasional Homemade Bread and Jams For Sale sign. Handmade quilts were sold off of the farm along with some small crafts. These city folks that were looking to escape the pressures of life in the workforce were a ready market.
Next to come about was the expansion of a small eatery known as Der Dutchman in Walnut Creek. This food alone was worth the drive just for a home baked lunch of steaming, crispy, broasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade stuffing, homemade wheat bread slathered with homemade peanut butter, and finished off with homemade pie.
This increased traffic paved the way for some small retail furniture stores. Suddenly the tempo starts changing. Where at one time you walked into the farm side furniture store and ordered your table from the family and sealed the deal with a friendly smile and handshake, you now dealt with someone that was truly a salesman. More volume was being moved which demanded higher production.
These small family shops, Dad and the children working together, started hiring more staff. We slowly evolved into mini factories which evolved into large factories. The small home shops gradually shut down and went to work for the large shops. I will relate the account of what this growth did for one individual and how it affected him. I was a plumbing and heating service technician at the time. I was sent out to this one small shop to reroute some plumbing. As I entered the door, the proprietor, a quiet-spoken young Amish fellow looked up and greeted me. There was sawdust in his hair a lopsided grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. The work ceased when he went to show us what needed to be done.
As I took in the workshop it was evident that quick improvisation was done to create this shop. A simple un-insulated plywood wall separated the buggies and lawn mowers from his manufacturing. Occasionally a neighbor boy would be there to help him with the work. As time went on his staff grew. A succession of expansion projects grew his work area tremendously. The original workshop had a small corner walled in for an office. This place was a hive of activity. The whole place was groaning for expansion, but there was no place to expand. Often times we were now met by a maintenance man.
Every once in a while I was still allowed the pleasure of the owner's presence. One such time was a few weeks before my wedding. He congratulated me on my upcoming nuptials and asked how long it was yet. Once more that friendly grin and twinkle in the eyes surfaced. "Let me give you a piece of advice," he offered with grave sincerity. "If your wife feeds you soup and hot dogs for a week, you know that she is mad at you."
One fact that he didn't know, tomato soup and hot dog sandwiches are a favorite winter meal of mine! His vague grin and twinkling eyes were the only indication of jest at my naiveness.
A number of years passed before I once again entered that doorway. What a change! I had heard that his business was growing by leaps and bounds. His company now encompassed multiple leased off-site buildings and employed upwards of a hundred employees! Their furniture is being sold internationally. They have a Mennonite member with a trucking company for distribution. What began as a converted buggy garage was now a corporate headquarters. Tools and sawdust were replaced with a receptionist. That first little office was replaced with a two story upward expansion of offices for marketing, personnel managers, dispatcher, purchasing, and the etc. that goes with a large modern business. After a short wait, out comes the "president", same soft spoken, unassuming Amish-man.
I look at the offices and let my mind block it out. What do I see? In the receptionists place I see a fellow bending over the profile of a sleigh bed headboard, some dust in his hair, a shy grin on his face. A soft-spoken voice greets me, "Hello, Javon. How are you. Let's go look at what we got. Where do you want to start?"
15 years ago, the start of a dream. Today a corporate office. What is striking to me the man behind it all. Three phases of growth, three distinct memories to me, converge on the same spot. Yet it did not change the man! His friendship was still as genuine, and he gives the credit to a God who is much greater than we ourselves are.
You might ask what university he got his business degree at to grow a business so quickly. Is it possible with an 8th grade education? Yes it is but it has slowly been evolving change into our culture. How long that will be true, only time will tell.
What are we facing? Changes are coming our way? We have a thriving economy in our community that is based on experiences like the above. A family has a vision for a home based business. It grows beyond their expectations and we learn on the fly. By relying on each other and God, we can continue to exist. We are dependent on our tourist trade whether we realize it or not.
The furniture trade employs day laborers that need jobs because farming is not available. This employs the timber industry, which fuels the trucking. Homes are needed because available housing is limited. New homes are being built in places that 20 years ago we would have said impossible, too steep, or this, that and the other thing. This requires excavation, plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, painters, cabinet makers and furniture to outfit these homes. We no longer have room or time to raise all our own food so we need produce growers to provide that. These in turn employ someone to transport it to market which opens farm markets and stores. So we see the cycle driving our community comes full circle.
Our furniture shops turn to our own "self taught" engineers and machinists who manufacture custom equipment or improvise existing equipment to meet our requirements. This is a complete new industry in itself.
Our offices require careful accounting methods. With us trying to stay away from internet etc. this opened up a sector for Anabaptist IT's and computer programmers who will build a computer from scratch called a "Word Processor" with basic functions but no entertainment capabilities. This opens up the market for business management software that needs to be written specifically for our own needs.
How will this affect our future generations? Only time will tell. There are times when we admit that it would be better to have more education in business management and accounting. Here is where we turn to seasoned veterans of the local community to help navigate these avenues.
We are facing the ever increasing need of reaching a clientele of digital savvy people dependant on the internet for purchasing. How will we adapt to it? We can let reps or marketing firms take care of it but that is only a secondary party to keep info accurate. Historically we have shunned electricity, telephones, television, radio, internet, etc. to maintain a simple life. That is changing. Can we compromise somewhere and still retain our culture? Let me be clear, our culture has no saving power. It is only by the Blood of Jesus Christ that we can be forgiven. This is our Statement of Faith. But will we be assimilated into mainstream society in the next 50-100 years?
How do we approach internet, cell phones, and all that goes with satisfying the requests of those that we do business with?
A new type of Amish are evolving. Will our values stay the same? Can we maintain our witness for Christ? We are asking ourselves these questions, what will happen when farming and agriculture disappear from our circles? Will we remain unchanged or what changes do we accept?